In the springtime heat of Soviet Georgia last week, a vase of drooping red carnations enlivened the humble furnishings of Josef Stalin’s first home—a fading May Day tribute from a few admirers in Gori, the provincial town where the Soviet dictator was born in 1879. Like that forlorn bouquet, the personality cult that Stalin fostered during his lifetime has withered. Now, where tour buses once unloaded countless pilgrims at the simple, two-room brick cottage that was one of Soviet communism’s most sacred shrines, the parking lot is empty. In fact, using the sort of suppression that Stalin himself customarily employed, his successors in the Kremlin have closed down the memorial, located 66 km northwest of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. But a caretaker at the site brusquely dismissed the official reasons for the closure: renovations.
Said Georgi, a 70-year-old war veteran who would not divulge his last name: “It has been three years now and no one will tell us when we will reopen.”
In any event, occasional visitors still come to Gori (population 50,000) to see the birthplace of the leader who industrialized the Soviet Union, led the country to victory over the Nazis during the Second World War—and killed, imprisoned or uprooted millions of his fellow citizens in murderous purges. In an elaborate tribute to the rise of the shoemaker's son, the cottage is skirted by a marbled floor of black-andwhite tiles and crowned by a stained-glass canopy. Nearby is the grandiose museum dedicated to Stalin’s memory. One visitor last week, an Estonian auto mechanic, expressed disapproval at the closing of the site. Gazing around the near-deserted memorial grounds, Hiller Tamm, 28, declared: “Those buildings are part of our history, and they should be open.”
But Tamm, like many Soviet citizens, was clearly ambivalent about Stalin’s role in history. The Estonian began by unfavorably comparing President Mikhail Gorbachev with Stalin. “We need a leader who can impose iron discipline,” said Tamm. “Gorbachev’s policies are leading to the breakup of the country.” Then, as if to remind himself of Stalin’s deadly excesses, Tamm added: “On the other hand, that would mean more victims of repression.” That comment, at least, reflects the sweeping changes that have occurred since Stalin’s death in 1953: during his regime, no one would have dared voice any criticism of the country’s leadership.
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